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Why Scotland Needs to Think Carefully About its Flood Defence Policy

05/02/2015 13:57 | Updated 06 April 2015

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has recently announced plans to alter Scotland's flood defence programme in line with a more sustainable approach to flood management. According to a recent article in The Scotsman newspaper, SEPA has decided that "rather than rail against nature there is a need to make us more resilient to flood hazard and to consider alternative methods."

So, rather than spending money on heavily engineered flood defences, SEPA are advocating a move towards more sustainable solutions, known in the industry as SUDS (sustainable urban drainage solutions). The key principle of SUDS involves creating 'room for water' by developing drainage solutions such as wetlands, retention ponds and swales, where run-off water can be stored. As well as other ideas that include 'green' roofs and permeable paving, which allow water through to the soil below.

Whilst I totally agree with SEPA's sustainable and holistic approach to flood alleviation for Scotland (in my opinion natural SUDS certainly do have a role to play in water management), I'm a firm believer that engineered solutions are needed to complement them. This is the only way to reduce the impacts of future large scale flooding events in the UK.

Sustainable solutions are important and should be encouraged wherever possible, but the fact of the matter is that SUDS alone will simply not be enough to protect Scotland, or the rest of the UK for that matter, from future flood damage. After all, when the ground is saturated, the water still has to go somewhere. Without engineered solutions, a natural SUDS project would be entirely powerless to stop extensive damage.

Engineered solutions can be something as simple as convex cambered roads that allow rainwater to run off, or as complex as the Thames flood barrier, but they are absolutely essential in the prevention and alleviation of flooding in our communities. Can you imagine the damage that would be caused if these systems weren't in place? Flat (rather than convex) roads would be consistently covered with flood water whenever it rained, and central London would be underwater every time there was a high tide or storm surge, causing billions of pounds worth of damage.

Another recommendation of SEPA is to avoid building housing developments on flood plains. Now, this is an extremely sensitive and controversial subject, especially with the desperate need for new houses, built quickly, to overcome the massive shortfall in the UK. Of course, it is well known that building on flood plains carries with it some risk, however, this hasn't stopped developers building more than 200,000 homes on flood plains from 2001 to 2011. These figures, as reported by the Committee for Climate Change, show no signs of abating, although most recent UK Government legislation is all about managing risk. And that is the vital factor, managing and mitigating risk to find the right balance for building new homes and avoiding heart-breaking damage to properties.

So while SEPA's aims are admirable - and sustainable solutions are vital for future generations - their solutions seem to edge too close to idealism.

I do, however, applaud and fully back Scotland's call for pre-emptive action against future flooding. The devastation caused by the recent floods could have been significantly reduced had governments past and present not taken such an uncompassionate policy towards cutting national flood defence budgets in recent years. Instead, we are having to play catch-up, ironically spending more money than the sum they would've paid had they not issued the cuts in the first place. A longer term awareness of the dangers of flooding at a national level is what's needed to prevent tragedies of this kind in future.